Memo To YW Leaders: Thanks, But No Thanks

Shawn Larsenfeminism, LDS, Leaders, Mormon, Priesthood, women 31 Comments

In our current callings, my wife and I spend a lot of time digging through Church instruction manuals.  I teach both the 12/13 year old Sunday School class (weekly) as well as Elders’ Quorum (once a month).  My wife serves as the Laurels adviser, and is responsible for teaching at least a couple of lessons per month.  Nearly everybody who has served in a teaching capacity can point to some instance in which they have viewed the correlated manual as lacking in some respect, be it too bland, too overly positive in its historical view, or just plain out of date (ever try getting kids to relate to John Taylor’s days as a woodcrafter?)

Last week, my wife ran across something in the Young Women manual that really caused us both to pause.  The lesson, entitled “Growing and Maturing In Self-Reliance (Part 1),” is centered around the notion that we, as Latter Day Saints, have a responsibility to become independent human beings.  That’s all well and good, but buried in the discussion points is the following “Note to teacher”:

Be sure that the young women understand clearly that assuming responsibility and becoming self-reliant is desirable and is what our Father in Heaven hopes for and expects.  But this does not mean that we become independent of his direction in our lives or the sound counsel of parents or priesthood leaders.


Can you figure out the source of our consternation?  Go back and read that second sentence again, and remember that this is a lesson being taught by a YW leader to a group of young women.  Who is left out as a potential source of direction and “sound counsel?”  The YW leader herself!

To be clear, the purpose of this thread is not to bash priesthood leaders or ring the “do/should women have the priesthood” bell again.  Rather, I want to raise for discussion two issues I see resulting from this teaching:

  • First, this notion undermines the ability of our YW leaders to help guide the lives of those young girls for whom they are called to be stewards.  YW is one the few places where women are given the opportunity to occupy a prominent leadership role.  Just like in any other calling, those who put in the time and effort can have a major impact on the lives of those they lead.  But if we tell our YW leaders that their counsel is always (and necessarily) secondary to that of any random priesthood leader, we are cutting their legs out from under them.   Simply put, a leader cannot lead without authority.  And if we leave our YW leaders powerless, they will devolve into nothing more than figureheads.
  • Second, and more troubling for me, a diminished role for YW leaders sends (reinforces?) the message to our girls that they will always play a backseat role in the Church affairs.  I have served in Ward Council-type positions myself and, thus, I am aware of the wide scope of authority Relief Society presidents often have and wield.  But the MIA Maids, for example, aren’t privy to that example, leaving their YW adviser as the foremost non-parent example of how women can and do lead in the Church.

You may be thinking to yourself, “geez, Larsen is making too much out of this.”  You may be right, but here’s why it gets under my skin.  I am not one who believes the Church is a patriarchal system designed to keep women down. Indeed, I have written elsewhere about my wife having the opportunity to counsel a grieving friend in tandem with the Bishop.  But I am the father of three young daughters, all of whom will be entering the Young Women’s program in the next few years.  I want the Church to be a part of their life that brings them happiness and compels them to be better people.  I want them to have strong female role models within the Church, so that they know their voice matters, too.  Setting up a puppet YW leadership, for my money, sends the exact opposite message.

So tell me, am I reading too much into this? Are our YW leaders, in practice, made to play secondary roles?  Are we sending our girls the message that the only Church authorities from whom they can and should receive ‘sound counsel’ wear suits and ties?  How do we correct the problem (or is not a problem at all?)

Comments 31

  1. YW leaders play a secondard role because it is a secondary role. God and parents should always be a primary role in a young girls life.

    What is wrong with this counsel? Nothing.

    Be sure that the young women understand clearly that assuming responsibility and becoming self-reliant is desirable and is what our Father in Heaven hopes for and expects. But this does not mean that we become independent of his direction in our lives or the sound counsel of parents or priesthood leaders.

  2. Yes, you’re squinting at a gnat. Focus on what the church does say. You’re being unfair by focusing on what was not said.

  3. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to disagree with this. As a secondary source of guidance, the young women leaders are fine, but just as I would prefer that the young men do not go first to their young men’s president for guidance on spiritual matters, I would hope that young women are not being taught to go first to the YW leaders.

    Look, I’m sorry, but ALL the youth should be encouraged to go FIRST to their parents with an issue, or in the case of a moral issue, to the Bishop. No church leader of any sort can or should be attempting to replace that role–not quorum presidents, not YM/YW leaders, not scout leaders. Not even GRANDPARENTS! Now there are times when a youth may have an issue and not feel comfortable talking with their parents. Fine. Then the YM/YW leaders may make themselves available, listen carefully, and then carefully keep the confidence of that youth while encouraging them to speak with their parents or the Bishop, as appropriate.

    Because lets be clear here–I actually view the YW presidency as being somewhat more important to a ward’s clear functioning than a YM’s presidency. (In point of fact, I think we may do a bit of harm to the Aaronic priesthood by having a YM presidency, but that’s another thread.) But I do think that making sure that the YW/YM understand that no youth leader is to become a surrogate parent or place to confess misdeeds is important; and I think that’s exactly what the manual refers to.

  4. But this begs the question: do the Aaronic Priesthood manuals contain a similar injunction to bypass their teachers in favor of ward/branch leadership and parents? Probably not (but maybe it does, couldn’t tell you). And if it doesn’t, what message is that sending?

  5. I was recently in the YM presidency, and want to reply to the idea that the teachers aren’t the ones who should be talking with the YM/YW. Kids only talk to people they trust. Period. That hopefully includes their parents, but in my ward (inner city in CT) parents usually aren’t around or aren’t good influences in their lives. The youth also don’t work with or see the Bishop as often as they see their Teachers, because He’s a very busy man with all the responsibility. Our Bishop is great, but can’t spend all his time with the youth. That leaves the Teachers.

    Yes, if the parents are there, they should talk with them, but kids won’t if they don’t trust their parents. Thus, if the Teachers have developed good relationships with the youth, then by all means talk with them! Counsel them. Much of the time, youth just want someone to listen to them. The Teachers are often the best ones for this job.

  6. You misunderstand the term “priesthood leaders.” This does not mean “leaders who hold the priesthood,” but “leaders appointed by priesthood.” Inasmuch as YW leaders are called by authority, they ARE priesthood leaders.

    Things are bad enough. Don’t trivialize the real issues by creating problems where none exist. Please.

  7. SilverRain beat me to it.

    If you don’t understand why we’re saying this, realize that the offending-but-shouldn’t-offend statement in the manual doesn’t direct the girls to turn to any random guy holding the priesthood merely because he holds the priesthood. It directs YW to their leaders, the ones with a stewardship over them. That stewardship comes through priesthood channels, and refers to any individual only so long as he or she holds that stewardship. YW leaders have stewardship and have a place in those channels just as their male priesthood-holding bishops do.

  8. I’m less concerned with the exact points made in the OP but I think the part of the manual he quotes is worth examining and thinking about; if not for for omitting the YW leaders from the leadership chain, then for the implications involved in the double movement of encouraging independence and dependence at the same time. There is a certain sub-text here that’s a little uncomfortable, and grossly under imagined.

  9. I agree with SilverRain and Banned Commenter on this – that the YW presidency actually functions in this way, but I agree with Shawn that the correlated comment in the manual did not necessarily intend that. There seems to be a recent tendency to refer to “the Priesthood” for everything lately. I don’t think that’s healthy in general, but especially unhealthy for YW who clearly would think that means “the male leaders.”

    As a previous YW, I can say that the idea of going to a male leader at church for advice is just creepy. No offense to any of the specific male leaders in my home ward, all of whom were excellent, very open-minded, great guys. But when you’re a teenage girl, that’s just weird. You would talk to an adult female leader you trust and can relate to (which actually rules out plenty of the female leaders, too).

    I agree with Douglas that the subtext of “be independent, but not really” is also interesting. It reminds me a lot of the recent revision of JS’s “teach them correct principles & let them govern themselves” that was in the teaching of JS manual: “Teach them correct principles and help them to learn to govern themselves.” That may seem like a subtle difference, but it’s a meaningful shift toward reliance on the organization and away from independent thought.

  10. Okay, so when someone randomly mentions “Priesthood Leaders” in a Church setting, what do you think of?

    Mission President


    do any of these come first to mind:

    Relief Society President
    YW President
    Primary President

    Now, consider: Is there anything in correlated Church lessons that would make a teenager think that “follow the advice of your parents and priesthood leaders” is exactly the same advice as “follow the advice of your parents and Young Women leaders”? When we want to tell the youth to follow their youth leaders, we always refer to them as either their YM and YW leaders or as their Priesthood and YW leaders or as their quorum and class advisers. Is there really anyone in the ward who believes that PH leader includes RS President?

  11. Hmmm.

    I read “priesthood leaders” not as any dude holding the priesthood in the ward or even the stake, but as…you know, leaders. Bishop, Stake President, etc. People who preside over the membership – not the EQ or YM, you know. Because they don’t preside over the girls.

    Still, being that women do not hold the priesthood I can see your point here. Sorry, but my priesthood leaders can offer me suggestions all they want and I’ll entertain them if I find them right and applicable to me, BUT they certainly will never trump what I feel in my prayerful heart is right, and I will teach both my daughter and my sons that same thing.

    I don’t see “priesthood leaders” as meant to be understood as “leaders appointed by the priesthood.” At all. I don’t imagine that is what was meant.

  12. #5 I can’t say as to what exactly is in the Aaronic Priesthood manual, but I can say that I never heard any suggestion in young mens that we should somehow approach our adviser before our parents.

    It was very clear- when you need advice the people you turn to are:

    God (in prayer)
    and the Bishop.
    On a rare occasion Hometeachers got a mention.

    After that it became a vague “your church leaders” which was usually taken to mean some adult at church who you trusted, which would likely be a YM adviser I guess.

    As for the original post? Mountains out of mole-hills.

    I hope this is just an April Fool’s day joke, as I think you’d have to be looking to take offense to get offended over something like this.

  13. Interesting how we read the same things and get different impressions. I read this and my thought was on the word “becoming” self-reliant. Young Women (and Young Men) should know that our Father in Heaven desires that we “become” self-reliant. The ACHIEVEMENT of that self-reliant status does not come to realization while we they are IN the YWYM program. It should come to realization when they hit young adults, ie going off to college. By then the YWYM leaders are out of the picture, so it is still the parents/family and priesthood leaders that they seek for direction in their lives. During the time in the YWYM programs, they are still BECOMING self-reliant. They are not there yet. When they ARE self-reliant, they are not independent of “His” (and that word should have been capitalized for clarity) direction. I’ve tried that extreme of independence (in my self-reliant adult phase) and from my own personal experience, I would counsel the youth with the advice recommended.

  14. “I agree with Douglas that the subtext of “be independent, but not really” is also interesting. It reminds me a lot of the recent revision of JS’s “teach them correct principles & let them govern themselves” that was in the teaching of JS manual: “Teach them correct principles and help them to learn to govern themselves.” That may seem like a subtle difference, but it’s a meaningful shift toward reliance on the organization and away from independent thought.”

    Indeed! In addition there is another level worth mentioning. This being that the quote in the OP seems to be informed by the idea that “direction” and “sound council” are going to be direct and pragmatic. Even if the statement in the OP isn’t informed by such a notion, it is a pretty common idea within Mormon culture.

    First, we need to keep in mind that the influence of Christ in our lives is something that we, as individuals, will need to give expression to. This is a process and something that requires independence, as we examine ourselves and our being in the world through the lens of scripture, the lens of theology, the lens of psychology, etc. Second, scripture and theology in the Christian tradition are deeply poetic in nature. This poetic nature provides something of a positive foil against simple pronouncements, direct assertions of ideology and authority, that is if we let it. Typically we Mormons are not very good at this sort of thinking, perhaps for the way so many “answers” are provided to us as received wisdom. Regardless, I hope that my children will be in contact with the poetic aspects of our theology and put the time in to become independent in how it finds expression in their lives and relationships.

  15. You ask if YW leaders in practice are made to play a secondary role. I haven’t found this to be the case. I am YW president and am constantly interacting with the girls and running the program. The bishop is supportive and has never interferred in any way. The girls see the bishop running the ward, but they really don’t see anyone besides the YW leaders providing leadership and running the YW program.

  16. I’m just now getting back to reading the comments and . . . Ouch! Looks like everyone thinks I am straining (not squinting) at gnats here. To be clear, I was not itching for a fight with this post and I am not in general a thin-skinned muckraker, as many have assumed (as I wrote above, it was my wife who brought this to my attention). The point of the post was to see whether my concerns have any grounding in the actual practice of counseling YW. Looks like all is well in Zion after all.

    #6 — That’s actually one the points I was hoping to suss out of all of this. YW should be encouraged to talk with those Church leaders with whom they have built up a relationship of trust. Ideally, this relationship exists with both the Bishop and the YW leaders, putting them on equal ground to advise.

    #7 — While I see where your coming from, I have a hard time believing that the folks who put together this lesson intended to include YW leaders in the category of “priesthood leaders>” They are not treated as such in any other context, so why would there be a difference here? (this is #12’s point, as well, as I read it)

    #14 — To be clear, I too believe that parents should be the first source of counsel. No one is disputing that. The question I posed is, beyond parents, do “priesthood leaders” and YW leaders stand on equal ground? To that point, I cited a specific example which differs from the “vague” (and unknown to me) reference to “church leaders.” Also, your last sentennce — not nice, try harder next time.

  17. Actually, Shawn, you raise a point I’ve been holding inside me ever since my wife was called as Young Women’s President. I really try hard not to complain, especially in public, but I’ve look at some of the lessons in the Young Women’s manual. To put it mildly, it’s seriously lacking. IMHO, the time is long overdue in which their manual be replaced and/or updated with greater doctrinal substance–for the Young Women’s sake! One place to start would be to place much greater emphasis on the scriptures over personal stories. It’s like using the Missionary Guide in an era of “Preach My Gospel”. (Seriously, Correlation ought to make that manual their next area of focus–please–at least for my own daughters’ sake).

  18. My biggest problem with how many YW groups are run, frankly, is that the YW are supposed to run the program – with the adults acting merely as advisers and trainers. That’s true of the YM and YW programs. The youth are supposed to preside in the meetings, schedule and run presidency meetings, conduct classes, choose activities, etc. The adults are supposed to empower them to do so.

    We treat our YW & YM too much as children and not enough as young MEN and WOMEN. Sally, I don’t know anything about your program, but the wording in your comment is exactly what I mean. (the leaders “running the program”) In our stake, the class and quorum presidencies very definitely “run the program” – and the change has been remarkable.

  19. #3 “…ALL the youth should be encouraged to go FIRST to their parents with an issue, or in the case of a moral issue, to the Bishop.”

    They should always go to their parents first. I am not a parent, but I would be miffed if a priesthood holder knew more about my kid than I do.

  20. “Look, I’m sorry, but ALL the youth should be encouraged to go FIRST to their parents with an issue, or in the case of a moral issue, to the Bishop.”

    Quite frankly I would much rather see the parents listed as the primary authority, even above the Bishop, and have that reinforced by the Church. It seems harmless to suggest the Bishop as a good alternative, when we are thinking of the Bishop as a generic reference to an ecclesiastical authority. When put into practice the Bishop is actually just my neighbor, and I am certain advocating him as a better reference when dealing with moral issues is such a good idea. When it comes time, and if it is your cup of tea, then the parents with the youth could approach the Bishop to address ecclesiastical needs of repentance through clergy.

  21. Ray – “My biggest problem with how many YW groups are run, frankly, is that the YW are supposed to run the program – with the adults acting merely as advisers and trainers.” That is funny you mention that. I hadn’t realized what bugged me so much about a leader who changed when I was a Laurel, but that was what it was. We had been running the program, and then this new sister moved in from UT, and she immediately took over the program. It felt like being put back in kindergarten, and suddenly the program was all about her instead of being our plans and our ideas. She did not want our input, or she would get it and not use it. The girls who were new to YW liked her, but we Laurels had grown up the program being the other way, and it was not a transition we could make back. It contributed to my going inactive at that time.

  22. Re #20

    I know when my wife was teaching Young Women’s classes, she commented that the lessons were exactly the same as those she heard when she was in Young Womens 10 years earlier. I know the gospel doesn’t change, but if the format of missionary discussions changes (ie, new Preach My Gospel), it would seem that an update of the manuals for teaching YMYW courses could use an update now and then.

  23. Shawn, you are not reading too much into it and don’t let anyone else tell you that you are. The fact is, if anyone ever has an issue with how the Church is run, leaders and loyal members encourage you to relax and not let it bother you. Who are they to tell you that? I would encourage you to think for yourself, and if it bothers you, you shouldn’t apologize for the fact that it bothers you.

  24. “The fact is, if anyone ever has an issue with how the Church is run, leaders and loyal members encourage you to relax and not let it bother you.”

    No, that is not “the fact”. “The fact” is that SOME leaders and “loyal members” say that about about SOME people and SOME issues. Too many, sure, but nowhere near “anyone”, “ever”.

  25. Fair enough, Ray. My point remains that Shawn should decide whether or not it bothers him, not someone else.

    And Shawn, from a practical standpoint, whether the manual says that does not dictate that your wife has to pass that along to the young women. I would hope that effective leadership in the YW program means that the YW look up to their YW leaders and that the YW leaders make themselves available to help the YW by building relationships where the YW would feel comfortable talking to the leaders if they need help. I don’t think the manual would affect these relationships at all.

    As far as being secondary roles, that depends on the situation. For most young people, their parents are naturally in the primary role for helping out, but that is not always the case. I don’t think making a blanket rule that kids should go to the bishop or go to their parents if they have a problem works in all situations. What if the child’s problems stem from his/her family situation? They would need someone they can trust who is not a parent. For some girls the YW leadership will be a tertiary role, for some girls the YW leadership could be the primary role. The bigger issue, I think, is that the leadership be ready to help out in whatever role is needed for that particular child.

  26. Last winter my son, my husband, and I had the flu. My son also has asthma and had been coughing nonstop all day. It was late at night and I was very weak and desperate for rest. My son was crying because he couldn’t go to sleep due to his incessant coughing. I had given him an inhaler treatment but it wasn’t working. I tried to envision one of us taking my son to the emergency room for a breathing treatment to help him rest but my aching body told me that it was not possible. I turned to my husband and could see he was in no condition to take him either. In fact, he was worse off than I. I drug my weary body out of bed and stumbled into my son’s room. I kneeled down placed my hands upon my son’s head and asked God to please help my son sleep through the night. I returned to bed and prayed for my husband and myself and went to sleep. I woke the next morning with more strength, relieved that my son had slept soundly through the night. I said a little prayer thanking God for his help but thought the inhaler kicked in with a little help from above. My son’s cough returned and I resumed treating him with the inhaler. The big surprise came when later that day my asthma began to act up. I tried my son’s inhaler and it did nothing to improve my condition. It was then I realized that my son’s inhaler was completely ineffective and that my blessing with my hands upon my son’s head was completely honored and answered by a higher power. This was a testament to me that God listens to all prayers from everyone regardless of religion. I say this because my husband isn’t Mormon and I decided quit attending church to learn about other religions 5 years ago. I think every soul has the power of God through sincere prayer.

  27. Great article! As a YW leader myself and a mother of a YW I believe that alot of the squashing down is coming directly from other YW leaders. I was recently told to not comment in a meeting because we need to allow the youth to. Here is the kicker… the youth were NOT responding and the line of questioning was not focused enough. The President was everywhere and nowhere at the same time with her remarks. After I made an appropriate comment girls actually agreed and started responding with their own experiences or thoughts. We YW leaders are only held back or down if we allow it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *